June 20, 2015
(This is part of a 365 project during my 70th years where I write and illustrate a blog on each day’s gift.)
|My father and me in 1944|
It has been more than six months since my father passed away and every day I think of him and miss him. I was his first child, born in Norfolk where he was stationed in the Navy. Not long after I was born, he was shipped overseas. How difficult that must have been for him! Before he died last year, we had many conversations. During one, he said that when he had to leave for Italy, he was afraid that my first year without him would affect our relationship, that I would love other family members more than him. He didn’t have to worry.
When I was growing up, my father was the “go to” person for help with homework or to answer questions. He always came through except for one time. I was a seventh-grader at Woodbourne Junior High School and had heard some girls giggling and using a new word I had never heard before. That night I asked my father what menstruation meant and was surprised to see him squirm in discomfort as he dodged the answer, “You’ll have to ask your mother.”
I learned many other things from him though—much by example. He was meticulous about never showing favoritism among his daughters and making sure we knew his love was unconditional, even when he did not approve of our behavior. The work ethic was ingrained in him and passed on to my sisters and me. We learned that education is important and all of us did well in school.
We also learned that family is important and we experienced much quality family time in traditions. Just a little before every Christmas, we always went to Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street to buy a Christmas tree. Then on Christmas Eve, my father would bring the tree into the house, branches wired up because we did not have enough space to let the branches hang full. We lived in a small row house on Lyndale Avenue near Clifton Park. Later that night, each of us would give and open one present and then go to bed in great anticipation. On Christmas morning, we were not allowed to go downstairs until my father checked to make sure Santa had finished his visit to our house. Then, when we heard that the coast was clear, we crept down the stairs, holding onto the wooden bannister as our eyes opened wide. Every Christmas, our living room was changed into something magical with a fully decorated and lit tree (we were told that Santa decorated our tree every year) and toys scattered all around it.
My father and I both enjoyed exploring possibilities. When our family rode together in our black Buick on backcountry roads, I would point out an abandoned, run-down house and say, “Look! We could fix that one up!” And my father would agree and elaborate with possibilities. In the same vein, one day as I was walking down a neighborhood alley, I noticed an old wooden picture frame sticking out of a garbage can. I pulled this frame out and took it home. My mother was appalled that I was picking things out of our neighbor’s trash and she wanted me to throw it away. I resisted, saying, “This is in pretty good shape. All we need to do is paint it gold.” My father helped me do that and the paint-by-number Last Supper oil painting that we had worked on together was put into the refurbished frame.
Although my father took many things seriously, he had a playful side that I seem to have developed too. Sometimes he demonstrated that he could still stand on his head and challenged us to do the same. One winter when he took us ice skating on Lake Roland that had frozen over, he pointed to a fallen log stuck in the ice. “See that log,” he pointed. “I’m going to jump over it. Bonnie, get your camera ready.” We were dubious that he would follow through but cheered his successful daredevil feat. There were a few practical jokes too—like the time he wrapped my birthday present, a new watch, in newspaper. We usually wrapped meal scraps folded into newspaper packets. As usual, he handed me a small folded newspaper packet and told me to take the dinner scraps out to the garbage. Then, trying to hold back a smile, he said, “You’d better check it first.” And then there was the time he sent me a postcard with a forged message from a boy I had a crush on. Having a good time. Wish you were here. Love, Bob.
Religion was a big part of our lives and we attended church every Sunday. As a teen, I was substitute organist and leader of a “cherub” choir. My father held a lay position that involved making home visits to every member during the annual pledge drive. One year, I was a junior member of this pledge team and visited members’ homes with him. Although my beliefs have changed and I no longer attend church regularly, I am glad religion was part of my early life. Just a couple years ago, as he battled Parkinson’s, my father called me and sounded depressed. I asked him directly, “Are you afraid.” “Yes,” he responded. “Of death?” I asked. “Yes,” he admitted. “You are not sure there is a heaven?” I continued. “Yes,” he said. I understood deeply how important his religion was at this time of his life. As we talked, I reminded him of his faith and how that would give him strength and solace. Near the end of his life, I bought a keyboard so I could take it on my visits and play his favorite hymns. From my fingers on the keyboard, the sounds reached out to his frail body—his body that wouldn’t obey him but that still managed to tap in time to the music.
As I lived through my teen years, my parents were challenged with their oldest daughter who did not always take the path they wanted. I was part of the 60’s and the world was changing. In television sitcoms of the 50’s, even married couples were shown going to sleep in separate twin beds and feminine products were not advertised as they are today. I was growing up in the age of the birth control pill and changing mores. I did not accept my parents’ views and this led to confrontations. So when it was time to go to college, I knew deep down that it was important for me to go away from home and I chose to go to Frostburg. My father, in an effort to retain some control, offered to buy me a car if I would commute to Towson instead of living away from home. That did not tempt me and, in retrospect, I made a good decision.
Many years later, as my father’s health was declining with Parkinson’s disease, he inspired a major photo project I worked on for two years. As I watched him struggle to do ordinary everyday things with a body that would not cooperate, he said in exasperation one day, “Bonnie, this isn’t me.” It was then that I realized that he did not want to be defined by his illness. I began a most interesting journey where I asked people of all ages, representing 15 countries, how they defined themselves. Then I took a portrait of them to go with their self-definitions.
My father also participated in this project. The portrait I took of him was truly a collaborative effort. He wanted in his portrait the ceramic angels that my mother had made. His self-definition was, “I am someone who doesn’t hurt other people’s feelings.” How appropriate for him. He was instrumental in teaching empathy to my sisters and me as we were growing up. I remember sitting at the dinner table and talking about school, church and neighborhood happenings. Often he would insert a question, “How do think she felt? Why do you think he did that?” He helped us step into another person’s perspective.
In recent years, as my father became more and more disabled, we had many talks together. We talked about my childhood rebelliousness, how he felt then and how he understood it later. “Your mother and I were too strict with you,” he lamented. “You did your best and I turned out okay,” I assured him. We talked about my LGBT friends and, from his responses, I noticed that he had changed and had become more accepting of people who were different from him. I always felt that through the years, my father must have often been disappointed in me, but I didn’t have to worry.
“Bonnie, I’ve always been proud of you.”
My gift today is empathy.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~You can find links to my other posts on this project here: